Archive for ‘Popular Culture’

July 19, 2017

Learning Conflict Resolution through Theatre

This morning (very early!), I joined Amanda Semenoff and C.D. Saint for their podcast, Overthinking Conflict.  The topic we discussed was how watching live theatre can be useful for conflict resolution professionals. Our discussion was wide ranging, and we touched on a number of reasons a conflict resolution practitioner might want to watch live theatre (many of which apply to other forms of art, too).

During the conversation, I was asked about recommendations for shows, and was sorry that I couldn’t refer to the upcoming Vancouver Fringe Festival performances because the Fringe program hasn’t been released yet.  (The launch party is Thursday, July 27th, 2017.)  Fringe Festivals are a particularly rich opportunity for conflict resolution professionals to explore plays. After all, there’s always a hodgepodge of domestic and international performers; plays are short, so risk is low (you aren’t trapped for hours wishing you’d made another choice!); standing in line for one performance gives you the chance to hear all about a dozen more shows; and the variety is incredible!

As I told Amanda and C.D., I’ll put together a list of recommendations for conflict resolution practitioners once the program is available, but, in the meantime, I wanted to ruminate further on the kinds of learning one can take away from live theatre.

Ultimately, I came up with a list of 8 ways in which watching live theatre can serve a learning purpose for a conflict resolution professional:

  • Observing and analyzing a contained conflict text
  • Observing, analyzing, or participating in a dramatized conflict resolution process
  • Learning about other ways of viewing the world
  • Engaging with metaphor
  • Reading meaning through physical theatre
  • Observing others’ skills in scripted or improvisational form
  • Explorations of historical conflict
  • Explorations of neuroscience, mental health topics, and other content that enriches our practice

Just as my conversation with Amanda and C.D. allowed only enough time to discuss a few ways we could talk about theatre as “homework” for conflict resolution practitioners, a single blog post doesn’t really give me scope to reflect on all of these topics either.  As such, I’ll concentrate only on the first topic here, and revisit the question over the next short while to discuss the remainder of the list.

Observing Conflict – Cause and Effect

Theatrical performances, especially those following the pattern of traditional European theatre, almost always focus around a central conflict. While there are variations to the pattern, and artists have consciously sought to create productions that resist that pattern,  theatre generally explores conflict.

In a typical, chronological narrative structure, the audience is able to observe a conflict develop and come to a point of crisis. Unlike real life conflicts where it’s virtually impossible to witness all the contributing factors, the contained nature of a well-structured drama allows the audience to see how conflict builds – often from multiple perspectives. As a student of conflict resolution, this chance to observe whole stories and to understand multiple perspectives creates an opportunity for reflection: Where have I seen those patterns of communication before? What kinds of changes in the characters’ communications could prevent the looming crisis? If a mediator were inserted into the mix, when and how would they seek to shift the dynamic?

Some years ago, I was involved in a project that asked the question: what if Hamlet and Gertrude had been able to mediate their family dispute? Our initial intention was to create a short video we could use to start a conversation with large law classes about the differences amongst dispute resolution processes. Instead, we launched many conversations about conflict prevention across multiple narrative art forms! I can say now with great confidence that there are hundreds of ways in which conflict resolution practitioners could have saved Romeo and Juliet! (I won’t even try to describe how little show would be left if conflict resolution students were set loose on Seinfeld: if you strip away the conflict, it really is about nothing.)

Over the years, conflict resolution students have shown me that some of the deepest, and clearest, conflict analyses comes from grappling with a performed, and contained, conflict. The finite nature of the material coupled with the relative linearity of most performances – or sometimes the intentional non-linearity chosen to highlight aspects of the conflict – offers a much tidier “text” for examination than any real life conflict can. Just as role plays are utilized to learn conflict resolution skills (even when some students must observe due to numbers), observations of performed plays allow for both individual reflection and discussion with co-learners.

One further reason that it is relatively easy to grapple deeply with issues in a play is one’s emotional distance from a performed conflict – all the more so when the conflict is known to be fictional. As mediators (or lawyers, arbitrators, etc.), we often try to find a place of empathy with enough distance to be able to offer alternative perspectives. Theatre allows us to step into that place and to become familiar with its feel. Film and television offer similar experiences, but the degree of control we have – to pause, rewind, re-view – makes the experience less immediate (less like the experience in real life) than live theatre.  With live actors, we experience greater immediacy, and, of course, there is a risk of things going wrong, of something unexpected happening, which connects the experience more viscerally with real life.  In fact, sit in the front row and the experience is entirely different than watching a film!

Here are three plays coming up soon on Vancouver stages that offer great opportunities to observe and examine conflict.  Consider getting out to the theatre this summer! And bring a colleague for post-theatre discussion!

  • Bard on the Beach will be showing The Merchant of Venice this year, and, even better, showing Shylock for a short run at the end of the season. Most people know something about The Merchant of Venice, and it certainly offers lots of familial and commercial dispute, a discussion of the interrelationship between law and mercy, and a great deal to discuss in terms of anti-Semitism and, by extension, other forms of bias. Shylock is a play that is often performed in combination with The Merchant of Venice because it explicitly examines the challenges of performing a text that cannot be separated from the prejudices of its times. It is well worth watching both!
  • In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play). I haven’t seen this yet, but its nomination for a Tony in 2010 bodes well. I’m anticipating that this one will offer a study in cognitive dissonance as its characters struggle to recognize the possibility of mistaken assumptions underlying culturally accepted “truths”. The fact that it involves a marital relationship increases the likelihood of it offering a window into a familiar interpersonal conflict.

 

 

 

October 25, 2016

Zombie Fight or Flight launches on Kickstarter!

PignPotato Games has just launched its Kickstarter campaign for Zombie Fight or Flight! This collaborative card game was developed at the CoRe Jolts Game Jam in June 2016.  PignPotato Games is made up of 7 Game Jam participants who decided to see if they could successfully launch the game created that weekend.

The group started by hiring Rachel Petrovicz to create amazing art for the cards, and have continued to test and improve the game over the past few months.  In the process, they’ve developed both ideas for classroom uses (for grades 3-12) and trainers’ notes for using the cards in conflict resolution and negotiation training.  In fact, the prototype decks will get a tryout on Halloween when they are used in the Continuing Legal Education Society’s course on Negotiation Skills for the Zombie Apocalypse.

cards-in-hand

The Kickstarter campaign will run until November 26th, but some rewards are limited in number, so check the campaign out soon if you’re interested in custom artwork, custom ceramics, or conflict resolution training and game jams!

Zombie Fight or Flight and Drunken Zombie Fight or Flight decks are available to ship worldwide, but if you’re in Vancouver, want to save shipping costs and can pick up on December 17th, make sure you choose the “without shipping option”.

January 17, 2016

Active listening skills for phone sex operators and other lessons from the theatre

“The cross pollination of disciplines is fundamental to truly revolutionary advances in our culture.”

– Neil deGrasse Tyson

This year our youngest daughter turned 19 and we are now parents of three adults.  They are all at university so it’s not as though all of our responsibilities have ended, but …  We are definitely free to make plans on our own in a way that hasn’t been possible since the eldest two (twins) were born.  It is possible that this freedom has gone to my head – just a bit.  As a former theatre student who attended plays very frequently in my pre-parent days, I upped our theatre-going dramatically this year in response to the excitement of that freedom!  We moved from season subscriptions at two theatres, to a year in which we saw close to an average of one play a week (an average which is skewed by seeing 30 plays in 10 days at the Vancouver Fringe Festival.)

Now theatre, by its very nature, tends to focus on conflict.  Critics since Aristotle have explored the ways in which plays develop around central conflicts; while playwrighting courses teach that nothing kills the entertainment value of a show quicker than characters agreeing about everything!  As a consequence, plays tend to lend themselves to examination through a conflict resolution lens: What is the source of the conflict? How do the characters negotiate? What might a conflict resolution professional take away from the interaction?

While I tend to view most popular culture through a conflict resolution lens – if only to identify great examples for teaching purposes – I realized this year that I have underutilized plays as options for engaged discussions with fellow conflict resolution professionals.  The realization hit me after I watched Tonya Jone Miller’s amazing performance in The Story of O’s at the Vancouver Fringe.  I’ll write more about the play below, but the play and her performance reminded me vividly of how interconnected some of the skills she was displaying are with conflict resolution practice.  As a result, I was inspired to come up with a list of the top plays for conflict resolution professionals that I saw in 2015 – with the hope that others will join me in discussions of even more such plays in 2016.  (To that end, I’ll be organizing a CoRe Speaker event in September specifically focused around plays seen at the Vancouver Fringe Festival. Details to be announced on the CoRe site once the Fringe schedule is announced.)

Jolts for Mediators

My top four plays for conflict resolution practitioners in 2015 were:

1. Tonya Jone Miller’s A Story of O’s

a_story_of_osI didn’t go to A Story of O’s with an expectation of insight into my own profession.  The program description in the Fringe guide told me little beyond the fact that the play was a monologue about sex phone work based on the performer’s real life experiences. It sounded like something that could be entertaining or dreadful; but it was only 60 minutes long so worth the risk given it fit the rest of my schedule for the night.

Instead of my best case – entertaining – the show was sensational! And much of what impressed me was directly related to Tonya’s demonstration of incredible skills in active listening, spontaneity, trust building (with the audience and with her phone sex clients) and empathy without judgment.  The majority of the show was scripted, but one could readily extrapolate, from the snippets of calls that Tonya performed, just how attentively she was listening to each client and continuously checking her understanding of their interests.  That she was so explicitly concerned with finding empathy without judgment with each caller resonated with me: as mediators we all occasionally struggle with a tendency to judge a party’s approach to negotiation, their behaviour leading up to the conflict or within the conflict, or even their objectives for resolution. Tonya demonstrated an empathy that many conflict resolution professionals must work to achieve.

The show also contained a truly brilliant snippet of improvised monologue based upon audience suggestions for a “weird” desire.  In that segment, of course, we witnessed Tonya’s amazing skills in spontaneity, listening and awareness of audience cues, “accepting offers” (in the sense of “yes, and-ing…” ideas and contributions from others in order to build on their ideas rather than rebut them), and storytelling.  I’d hire Tonya as a mediator based purely on that performance!

If you have an opportunity to see the show – or anything else she creates – you should! And then let me know: I really need someone else with a conflict resolution lens to discuss the show with!

2. A Simple Space

This production by the Australian acrobatics ensemble Gravity and Other Myths inspired me to think about conflict resolution themes in entirely different ways.  The troupe of 7 highly skilled acrobats mix games in which they compete against each other to “win” such challenges as most standing back flips in a row with incredibly challenging “team competitions” in which they carry out incredible acrobatic feats that rely on perfect collaboration amongst all members of the troupe to keep everyone safe and in which they all “win” if they pull it off (even if one or another member might have a “starring role” from time to time).

As a whole, the show is a brilliant display of teamwork at its best and most functional, and ways in which competition can be enervating and push teams working together to higher levels of achievement.  Check out the video below for a flavour of their performance – then imagine yourself seated right on stage as they perform only a few feet away!

3. Cock by Mike Bartlett

Cock_video-01-500x155cockfightCock won an Outstanding Achievement Award in the 2010 Oliviers, so there will certainly be opportunities to see it performed by different companies in different cities.  On a simple, structural level, the play showcases interpersonal and relational conflicts in a rapidly changing series of short scenes.  John is torn between a return to a long term relationship with his boyfriend, M, and a new relationship with a woman, W. Staged without props in a circle intended to evoke a cock fighting ring, the play shows moves from one confrontation between characters to another: first John and M engage in a series of difficult conversations, then John and W circle each other in similar discontent.  Eventually we see the combination of John, M and W, only to have John’s father, F, added to the mix.  The production staged by Rumble Theatre in Vancouver maintained the sense of short engagements in a longer (cock) fight as the characters pick at each other in familiar patterns of verbal conflict.  Each scene offers examples of all the ways that speech and body language can exacerbate conflict.  John’s personal conflict drives the play, but the interactions of the characters in snippets of negative discussions offers the conflict resolution professional a complete study in conflict behaviours.

4. Nirbhaya

nirbhaya_1Nirbhaya is a powerful interweaving of women’s stories of sexual violence and abuse. The stories are woven around the central tale of Nirbhaya who died following a horrific gang-rape on a Delhi bus in 2012. (The name Nirbhaya, meaning “fearless”, was used to identify Jhoti Singh Pandey before her name was known.)  The stories invite the audience to acknowledge the existence of sexual oppression and abuse, and the consequences – to individuals, families, and societies – of the resilience of such cultures. The topic of culture in conflict studies is an extraordinarily broad one: plays like Nirbhaya help us to engage in discussions of such difficult and complex topic through the lens of individual narratives, opening up discussions and increasing understanding.

Honourable mentions?

If you are looking for plays that lend themselves to a conflict resolution discussion, then I’d also recommend:

  • The New Conformity – a narrative about social and peer pressures to conform performed entirely through juggling.
  • Small Town Hoser Spic – Pedro Chamale’s one-man contemplation on growing up Hispanic in a small town in northern BC.
  • 52 Pick-Up – This story of a couple’s first meeting through dissolution of their relationship is told in the order in which 52 playing cards are picked up by the actors. Never the same, every performance offers new insights and connections.

And What to Watch for this Year?

I’ve made a few theatre-going choices for early 2016 with the intention of seeking out conflict resolution themes.  If you’re interested in joining me in the endeavour, consider checking out:

October 27, 2013

Oh no, please don’t!

“The worst thing that you could do right now is beatbox.”

– The Doubleclicks

stalemateTwo weeks ago I had the pleasure of co-faciliating a workshop on Advanced Impasse-Breaking Tools with long time colleague and collaborator Carrie Gallant.  It was a great chance to reflect on the applicability of ideas across varied contexts since we had a fabulous assortment of participants ranging from collaborative divorce practitioners through corporate tax specialists with lots of variation in between.  What was particularly inspiring to me during the session was hearing the participants readily extrapolate ideas that emerged in one practice area to their own contexts.  What seemed to facilitate these connections was the process of making explicit the intention behind any process choice.  For example, rather than thinking to myself that I should caucus because the parties seem to be reaching a sticking point around making an offer (and that’s what has worked in the same situation with other parties), I can be more responsive to the specific people in front of me if I instead think “Hmmm…  There’s a pattern of resisting that I could interrupt in a variety of ways, including caucusing.  Some of those might have additional benefits, so which one seems best suited to the here and now?”

One topic that generated more discussion during the workshop than Carrie and I had expected was the notion of negative brainstorming – brainstorming what doesn’t work in order to create criteria for what might.  Given the interest from the group in various ways of harnessing negative energy and reactive interpersonal behaviours in seeking resolutions, I decided to post about some ways in which “what not to do?” can be a helpful question.

Jolts for Mediation

1. “What won’t work?” or Capitalizing on the “Listening to Rebut” pattern

Debate2When parties are locked into a pattern of listening to rebut (a useful phrase that John R. Van Winkle uses in Mediation: a path back for the lost lawyer, p. 83), they are not likely to be able to brainstorm ideas jointly.  Rather than reserving judgment, each idea offered will meet with critique and discussion of why it doesn’t work, or silence if the rebuttal impulse is squelched.  The pattern of rebuttal is a strong one in our adversarial culture, and can frustrate attempts at joint problem-solving unless one chooses to make intentional use of the pattern.  Essentially, the mediator, recognizing the pattern of rebuttal, changes the question from “what would resolve the issues?” to “what won’t work to resolve the issues?”  The latter question often generates a fairly energetic list of negatives (e.g. It can’t work if we have to see each other!).  That list, however, can be a great tool for generating criteria necessary for resolution.  (e.g. Any solution will need to minimize or eliminate direct contact.)  Once parties engage with the process of developing criteria from this list of negatives, they are on their way to a solution-oriented discussion, and the mediator can assist the parties to pull criteria and/or interests directly from the negative list.  Working with a white board or other visual aid to generate and translate the list has the added advantage of being a second form of pattern interrupt – it moves parties’ visual focus to the mediator and the lists, disrupting the physical pattern as well as the verbal one.

It’s interesting to note that for participants who work in areas that might be described as dealmaking rather than dispute resolution, this technique struck a different chord.  As one tax practitioner explained it, in his world it is common to describe the perceived barriers to a course of action in order to test whether they are true barriers or simply untested assumptions.  By engaging in a process of examining whether or not the assumed roadblock is a true impediment to the deal, the parties may both discover a more creative approach than if they simply accepted the barrier as absolute.  For that reason, articulating barriers can be a useful exercise where parties are in agreement about what they want to achieve, but are assuming that they can’t get there – or can only get there in one way that isn’t ideal for some reason.

2. Life Goals Analysis

While preparing this post, I was also planning a future workshop on reality checking and hence re-reading (inter alia) John Wade’s 2001 paper on Systematic Risk Analysis.  With musings on negative brainstorming in mind, I read Professor Wade’s discussion of “Life Goals Analysis” a bit differently than I have in the past and realized that the approach he espouses is an interesting variation on the idea of shifting a list of barriers into a list of positive criteria.  In suitable situations, Professor Wade suggests creating a short “life goals” list with a client as a means of emphasizing positive gains rather than dwelling on a negative list of risks.  Where a typical risk analysis approach to client counselling or business decision-making might list the risks if conflict continues, the life goals analysis focuses on the aspects of resolution that might help a client meet broader life goals.  The chart below is clipped from page 21 of Professor Wade’s paper and shows a few examples of how risk analysis might be converted to life goals.

Wade life goals

Professor Wade flags the possible psychological benefit of reframing to positives, noting:

“This switch may find some justification from several psychological studies which suggest that most (not all) people are “risk averse”.  Therefore, any list should express positively what has already been gained by the current offer, not how far the current offer is short of a ‘target’ or perceived ‘entitlement'”.

3. The “I Hate Beatboxing” Jolt

The quotation that heads this blog post is drawn from a song by one of my favourite bands, The Doubleclicks.  As you’ll see if you watch the video embedded below, the song captures the sense of “what not to do” in social situations with awkward pauses, and escalates the question by framing it as “the worst thing that you could do right now” as opposed to just what doesn’t work.  In The Doubleclicks world, “the worst thing you could do right now is beatbox,” but in a mediation, there are definitely worse options.  What happens if you ask the parties – perhaps in caucus – “what’s the worst thing we could do right now?” If you start the list with beatboxing or jumping up and down and squawking like a seagull, then you might at least generate a list that helps break the mood.  You’ll likely also get some ideas that focus on real process choices and that can be used to draw out reasons why the current process is not working as well as it could.  (E.g. Even “the worst thing we could do right now is keep going the way we’re going!” allows for the possibility of a discussion of what needs to change in the process.)

Personally, I can see playing the song itself in a facilitation or classroom setting where things are going awry for some reason and asking “what’s the worst thing we could do right now?”  Just as generating negative criteria can be a method of developing ideas for how to resolve a content problem, generating ideas of worst process choices (or behaviours) can form the basis for jointly exploring new process choices.

Carrie and I have another workshop coming up on November 19th on MBTI Types and Conflict Resolution. The session will be particularly focused on the application of the MBTI Step II tool and will be of interest to anyone interested in type and conflict.  You can see a sample of my thoughts about the Step I tool and conflict on this site.  The session supports the CoRe Conflict Resolution Society and offers 3.5 hours of CPD credits.  For more information, check out our website.  

 

May 17, 2013

Board Games for Mediators

“Don’t be a d**k.” – Wil Wheaton

Who gets pneumonia suddenly just as the weather turns warm and a period of relative calm appears in both work and family schedules?  Apparently, that’s me. I’ve just spent two weeks laid up with pneumonia!  Still not recovered, but sitting up and taking the opportunity to share my (possibly) fever-induced insights…  For much of the past weeks, I have been too weary for much reading, and restricted in television watching by a promise not to get ahead of my husband on anything I’d really like to watch.  Netflix was misfiring on our device and wearing down my patience, so Youtube it has been – and a bizarre marathon of TableTop with Wil Wheaton.  For those readers unfamiliar with TableTop, the show is remarkably simple in concept: Wil Wheaton (now primarily an internet celebrity, but for older folks often better known as young Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation)  plays tabletop games with his friends (usually other internet and television actors, producers, writers, etc.) and introduces viewers to a wide range of cool games in the process.

No doubt occurring to me as a rationalization for my odd compulsion to watch every TableTop episode in order, I started thinking early on about the potential value of the various tabletop games played on the show for conflict resolution purposes.  And lo and behold, there really are quite a few that lend themselves to such consideration!  I’m going to concentrate here on two games that illustrate two different categories of possible interest to mediators:  Dixit – a game about understanding indirect communication (through a wide range of skills); and Pandemic – one of many collaborative games that require teamwork and joint problem solving to have any chance of winning.  There are many other examples of each of these categories of games, of course, but these two happen to have been featured on TableTop which allows me to link to a more detailed explanation – and they’re really fun!

Jolts for Mediators (and possibly for Mediation?)

dixit-odyssey-8n7jgji1. Dixit

Dixit is an award-winning European card game that I’d never heard of before my TableTop marathon.  It’s remarkably simple in concept. Each player starts with 6 cards with artistic images on them.  Players take turns being the Storyteller.  The player who is the Storyteller chooses a card from her hand and lays it down on the table face down, giving a short descriptive phrase that might allow others to identify the card.  Everyone else also lays down a card  – one that they think is most likely to fool other players into thinking it was the Storyteller’s card.  The cards are shuffled, turned face up, and each player places their bet as to which card was the Storyteller’s. The Storyteller scores points only if at least one player, but not all, chooses her card.  Others score by choosing the right card and by having votes on the card they played.

dixit_cardsIIHere’s a simple example:  Suppose the Storyteller played the second card in this set (the books) and gave the description “From above”.  Players might well choose photo 1, 3 or 5 instead – depending on how they understand the description.  So in essence, success in the game relies on the following skills:

  • Reading any clues from the Storyteller’s tone and body language
  • Interpreting the clue through the lens of the Storyteller (which means really listening to the clues a person gives from one round to the next and developing a sense of how they interpret visual images)
  • Fooling other players by selecting cards that you believe they will see as matching the description (which means, again, understanding the lenses that others bring to the game and speaking to their worldviews rather than automatically and unconsciously choosing according to your own)
  • As Storyteller, communicating to some, but not all of the people in the room (by utilizing clues that one or two people will recognize, but that you think at least one other will not).

It seems to me that each of these skills are closely connected with strong mediation skills, particularly the need to recognize and speak to different worldviews and backgrounds, and to do so consciously and with awareness.  One could certainly play the game without doing so, and I am sure that many players do approach it fairly unstrategically, but what a great warm-up/practice of conscious skill development when one is deliberately focused on that aspect of the game!

I can imagine utilizing the game as a pattern interrupt in a conflict resolution skills training workshop.  Allowing the participants to debrief the skills utilized and to practice them consciously could provide a great reinforcement of discussions of varied lenses, cultural differences, etc. while changing the rhythm should students reach a point of low energy or discouragement with the speed of their skill development.

The game is so simple that I suspect that in the right setting one could play a single hand (or a couple of hands) in an actual mediation to introduce a discussion of communication challenges.  Again, a pattern interrupt aimed at stimulating reflection on and discussion of the process as opposed to the content of the mediation.  Most tools that effectively shift parties to a discussion of process can be effective in breaking impasses based on positional posturing, and I suspect that Dixit could too.

If you’d like to watch the TableTop episode on Dixit, here it is.  Watch Casey McKinnon’s play, in particular, for a great example of explicit strategizing about clues that will communicate with one but not all players.

Pandemic2. Pandemic

This one is a bit “on the nose” for my current bout of pneumonia, but my daughters have kindly indulged me by letting me play multiple rounds with the intention of eradicating pneumonia (and three other diseases) from existence!

Pandemic is one of a wide range of collaborative board games.  Players are trying to wipe out 4 diseases that spread quickly throughout the world.  Each player has a different character who has different abilities.  Only by working together, and strategizing carefully do players have the slightest chance of winning the game and curing all 4 diseases.  There are three ways to lose the game, and only one to win.  Very difficult to win even at the simplest level of play with only 4 epidemic cards in the deck, and almost impossible at the highest levels!  But oh so much fun!

I love Pandemic because I love the way it brings people together to focus on problem-solving.  It very quickly feels like that moment in a mediation when everyone transitions from positional gamesmanship to solution-oriented communication. Gaming scholar, Carly A. Korucek, captures much of my reaction to Pandemic in her description of playing the game for the first time and her thinking about the culturally celebrated model of competition in games of all sorts.  Here’s a fairly lengthy quote from her blog, Casual Scholarship, that provides a gaming scholar’s insight into collaborative gaming:

I was impressed by Pandemic. Sure, it was fun, but I was more impressed by the effect it had on those of us playing. We weren’t just sort of working together, we were painstakingly thinking through the ramifications of every possible move for every player. At some points, we plotted out series of actions involving 3 or 4 players’ turns. We were sucked in. When we — all of us — lost, there was swearing and shouts of disappointment.

The point I want to suggest here is that playing collaborative games can be a very different experience than playing, well, most other games, which pit players against each other, either individually or in groups. In the realm of boardgames, games like checkers, Clue, Sorry, and other household names encourage players to compete directly with each other. This model is so established that when I ask people if they can think of any collaborative games, they often draw a blank.  …

In writing about the history of competitive video gaming, I have been thinking a lot about  models of play that aren’t based on competition among players, not because they are prevalent, but specifically because they are obscure. The fetishization of individualized competition in much of gaming shouldn’t be seen as either natural or neutral. Our investment and interest in the successes of individual gamers is part of a system that broadly values individual achievements and may, even in the case of corporate- or team-based achievements, give credit for success to individual actors rather than the collective involved.

Professor Korucek makes an important point when she notes that individual competition is neither natural nor neutral.  Competition is a value embedded so deeply in our culture that we don’t even question it.  We celebrate the most competitive individuals and strive to instil competitive drive in our youth, even while suggesting that we should all cooperate.  To quote a favourite song from Todd Snider, Ballad of the Kingsmen:

…First grade where they teach the kid pride
They tell him he’ll need to thrive,
In a world where only the strong will survive,
So he’s taught the art of more
To compare to and to keep score Monday thru Friday while
He stares at the floor til’ Sunday they make him go to
School once more only this time they make him wear a suit and a tie
And listen to some guy who claims to know Where people go
When they die tell him that only the meek are gonna inherit the earth…

In this context of unexamined competitive values, collaborative games like Pandemic are important in that they are every bit as fun as any competitive game you can name, and they reward wholly different values than games based on individual victory – the values that underlie all collaborative decision-making processes.  Of course, cooperative games were an education buzzword when I was a teenager, and they have been part of many children’s programs at least since then.  But, as Professor Korucek comments regarding video gaming, competition has remained the norm in much the same way that competitive bargaining remains the expectation when people sit down to negotiate.  The challenges that so many in the justice field have written about in shifting dispute resolution culture (and perhaps especially legal dispute resolution culture) to create space for collaborative approaches are the same challenges that any game designer faces in creating a collaborative game – we have unconsciously adopted competitive values from virtually all aspects of our culture and assume that competition is a universal norm, making collaboration risky.  This normalizing of competition has led us to simply not think of games as being collaborative unless they are didactic and offered in school to teach young children about cooperation.   Well, happily that is changing and games like Pandemic may just be a little wedge in the dominant culture of competition.

Pandemicg01t04How to introduce Pandemic to mediators, and maybe even sneak it into a team-building setting or other collaborative process?  Try playing Pandemic at a mediators’ retreat, or (and I would love to be invited!) at a monthly mediators’ gaming evening.  And introduce it to your families and friends to spread the word about collaborative gaming.  And yes, perhaps in the right setting, you could even use the game in a long term facilitation.  I’m thinking here of longer term work with families who need to learn (or re-learn) how to work together and might need to include pre-teens and teens in that process.  Playing a game might be a “homework” assignment to help the family prepare for a joint problem solving session.  Or similarly imagine the game used as part of work with family members planning around a loved one’s illness.  I found it remarkably therapeutic to name the red disease ‘pneumonia’ and set our to eradicate it as quickly as possible; others might find similar moments of unexpected lightness in bringing caregivers and family members together to defeat cancer or dementia.  (I think of dementia, in particular, as I look forward to Don Desonier’s upcoming CoRe Talk about working with families planning around dementia, but any illness might be equally appropriate). Likewise, workplace retreats and workshops aimed at building teamwork and increasing collaborative problem solving could be an appropriate situation for a game of Pandemic.  In many such events, games of one form or another are already normalized as part of team building.  I know I’ve attended a number of firm/faculty/workplace social events that involved competitive games. Doesn’t building an event around a game in which the whole team wins or loses more closely match the real workplace ideal of competing together than pitting half the group against the other half?

Here’s the TableTop episode on Pandemic.

And to circle back ever so briefly to the potentially obscure quote that led off this discussion, one of Wil Wheaton’s further contributions to the betterment of the world (beyond providing inspiration for collaborative gaming and mediation skills training) is the naming of July 29th (his birthday) as Don’t Be a D**k Day.  Simple message, but definitely one that will resonate with many mediators.  Personally, I plan to schedule mediations on July 29th whenever I can simply so I can declare at the outset that it’s Don’t Be a D**k Day and that the main ground rule for collaborative problem solving is just that simple.

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